Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

What's Wrong With Those Pesky "Village Worthies"?

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I’ve started work on a paper that asks how issues like continence and conscientiousness look when viewed through the lens of early Confucianism. These seems like a good idea in part because of the great range of ways in which such issues are treated in recent virtue ethics/virtue theory literature: some take it for granted that conscientiousness is a virtue, and perhaps even a central one (e.g., Adams, Wallace), while others insist that it is not a virtue at all, while disagreeing about what value it may have (e.g., Slote, Roberts). How do Confucians carve up the terrain? What attitudes, states, dispositions, and so on do they recognize that might do similar work to conscientiousness and related ideas?

These are big questions that I don’t propose to seriously address in this post, though maybe I’ll go there in subsequent efforts. (I’m new to this whole blog-posting thing. One step at a time.) For today, I want to focus on the infamous “village worthies (xiang yuan 鄉愿)” who are described briefly in Analects 17:13 as “thieves of virtue” and discussed at somewhat more length in Mengzi 7B37. My questions are: what’s wrong with them, and do the two texts view them in precisely the same way?

In the Analects, I believe there is a thematic concern with hypocrisy that one can find throughout the text. And a passage adjacent to 17:13 draws an analogy between “assuming a severe expression while being weak inside” and breaking into a home and committing burglary. This suggests to me that the village worthies are thieves of virtue in the sense that their “worthy” exterior is stolen or at least unmerited. They appear good but are really not. They are hypocrites.

Contrast this with Mengzi’s discussion. He says that they have no aspiration to improve themselves; they say, “Born in this era, we should be for this era. To be good is enough 善斯可矣.” Mencius remarks that:

If you try to condemn them, there is nothing you can point to…. They are in agreement with current customs; they are in harmony with the sordid era in which they live. They seem to dwell in devotion and faithfulness (zhong xin); their actions seem to be blameless and pure. The multitude delight in them; they regard themselves as right (自以為是). But you cannot enter into the Way of Yao and Shun with them. [translation from Van Norden, 195]

Mengzi’s use of the word “seem” suggests that his concern may be that village worthies exhibit mere semblances of virtue: a seemingly good exterior is unearned because it masks inner weakness. And yet Mengzi’s worry here seems to me to be subtly different from that in the Analects. It is not so much that village worthies (as he understands them) hide their inner weakness, as that they are celebrated for doing their quite minimal duties and no more. The problem with village worthies is that they thrive in and actively encourage a culture of doing no more than one’s duty, and they do this at a time when the collectively understood duties are too minimal to lead to genuine moral progress for individuals or for the society. In short, rather than calling Mengzi’s “village worthies” hypocritical, we should simply see them as conscientious; and Mengzi found such conscientiousness deeply troubling.

What do you think? Am I making up a difference where one does not exist?

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